Wednesday, August 25, 2010

First Grade Blessings at Chanaton

Just a quick positive note before I go to bed to balance the negativity in the previous post...

We had an experience this past Shabbat that made me really happy to have made Aliya and come live at Chanaton. All the children at shul who were about to start first grade were invited up to the bimah before Maftir (part of the weekly Torah reading) for a special blessing, and then they were each given a spoonful of honey so that the words of learning and Torah that they were about to begin studying would be sweet in their mouths. (similar to a traditional ritual for 3 year olds before they get a hair cut and begin Hebrew school). Having Yonah join the other children and beam with pride (after he got over the confusion of what it was all about and the excitement of being able to go up close to and touch the Torah) was really nice. I know that similar brachot are bestowed in shuls all over Israel this week and next, but I just felt at home and that Yonah was safe and loved at that moment - and he seemed to know it too.

Special Ed in Israel - Not as smooth as we thought

Ian and I have been quite positive about our experiences here so far. We were interviewed by HaAretz yesterday and had great things to say. However, now it is almost 2:30 AM and I can not sleep over worry that we made a big mistake that our son Yonah will have to pay for in the long run. I hope that I am wrong about this and that in the coming days things will work out.

One of the reasons we made Aliya is that we thought living here in Israel, and particularly on this Kibbutz in the North would be particularly beneficial for our son, Yonah, who was recently diagnosed with PDD (Pervasive Developmental Disorder, on the Autism Spectrum without meeting all the criteria). Yonah has been receiving early intervention services for undifferentiated developmental delays since he was one, but we had not been able to get a clear diagnosis in the states, and the classes being offered to him were for multiply disabled kids, with good services, but nothing directly related to communication disorders. There were no services available to Yonah in a Jewish environment in our part of New Jersey either. (I have noted to many people recently that Yonah is my most religious child and is excited to learn how to read just so that he could learn and read Torah, so staying in the states would have meant a major trade off).

Our past year in Jerusalem was quite good for Yonah. He was in a Gan Tazpit (Diagnostic Gan). We had to fight the beurocracy to get him in (with some help from an educational consultant who was working with us), but it was ultimately a great experience. Yonah had a wonderful teacher and staff and learned alot. More importantly - they put us on the right path to get him diagnosed and get Vaad Hasama aproval for a Kita Tikshoret (communication class for kids on the autism spectrum). It turns out that Israel and the Israeli schools are quite advanced vis-a-vis educational opportunities for kids with PDD and that by law - students classified with PDD must be provided with a special class designed for them. (Typically there are 8 kids max, specially trained teachers and staff, and since the classes are in regular schools, opportunities for mainstreaming in selected subjects as appropriate). The availability of these services reinforced our desire to make aliya.

When we became intersted in Chanaton and moving north, I had repeatedely said that the one thing that would prevent us from coming here is if we can not find a good school for Yonah. I was concerned that it was a more rural area and may not have the same opportunities as Jerusalem. The system of Kitot Tikshoret is supported by a national law, however, and I was reassured that these classes exist throughout the country. I also hit something of a brick wall in trying to identify specific schools or classes before we made a decission to move. People that Nefesh B'Nefesh referred me to about special needs in the North were not particularly knowledgeable about specific schools with Kitot Tikshoret, and when I spoke to the education officials in the Moatza (equivelant of county government), they basically said that they would help - but could not do anything concrete until we had an address in the North. So we took a leap of faith and arranged to find a house and get a lease signed as we were completing Vaad Hasama processes in Jerusalem. We got the lease and also classification by the Vaad Hasama so then the Moatza psychologist and special ed placement staff were available to help.

Unfortunately at this point they informed me that because the Moatza was so sparsley populated they did not have enough kids Yonah's age for a Kitah Tikshoret in any of the Moatza schools (issues of data/chiloni/Tali were not even on the table). so the will find him a placement in a nearby municipality - as they are obligated to do by law. OK - I could live with that - they would arrange transportation and it would not be that far anyway. First they mentioned a school in Tivon that had a great program, but after a week or so they said that the Tivon class had filled up and Yonah was bumped out because kids in Tivon had priority. Then they wanted him to be placed in a Kita Mitkademet (akin to a multiply disabled class without any specific focus on communication disorders). This would be in this Moatza (so easier to secure a placement) in a place not too far called Kfar Yehoshua (rural town with farm animals or something in or near the school so that would be nice for Yonah). I spoke to Yonah's teacher from Gan Tazpit and she said that Kitah Mitlademet is probably too low functioning for Yonah and he would not be likely to get the specific supports that he needs, so she suggested I insist on Yonah's rights for a Kita Tikshoret. The placement official at the Moatza then suggested either a class in Karmiel (to our North) or outside of Haifa in Kiryat Bialik (both about a 25 to 30 minute drive). In the end they detrmined that Kiryat Bialik was the place and that they had a spot for Yonah.

They needed to send final reports to Kiryat Bialik but all seemed in order. The week before we left for New Jersey (end of July) they asked for a follow up letter (to correct an error) from the Vaad HAsama in Jerusalem, which we got and my understanding was that the placement was on track. When we got back to Israel - I got back in touch with the Moatza to find out who to speak to in Kiryat Bialik so that I could arrange a visit for Yonah before school starts and get supply lists and meet the teachers, etc... and then I was told by the placement coordinator that he was still waiting for a final aproval. I am not sure what he was doing for the last month (or why it took this long to get a placement when they knew about Yonah as early as last April) but suddenly he was busy making calls and then today he tells us that in fact, Kiryat Bialik has decided to reject Yonah because it says in his final report from the school that he had been working with his teacher on some potty training issues (and made considerable progress). The placement coordinator sounded skeptical that this was the real reason.

Regardless - we are starting over again from the drawing board. Ron (placement guy from the Moatza) will make calls to schools in Haifa and Acco. Ian and I have been reaching out to Nefesh B Nefesh education people and other special ed support contacts, and we are also remobilizing folks with connections to Leo Beack - in an efffort to get him into that school (a great place that was booked up by the time I learned about them and applied - but where we would love for Yonah to be able to learn). (More on Leo Beack in another post I hope - - but for now, a kibbutz member who works there and was also assigned to us as our partner family to help with Klita spoke with the principal who said that he would love to help but they are full and they promised other families not to increase class sizes (part of why they are so popular I suspect) so unless someone drops out at the last minute - they can not help. I understand that - but argh!)

Bottom line - Less than a week before the start of school and we are starting over from scratch - again. Other familes are buying books and supplies and school shirts to get their kids ready for school. Other first graders are getting geared up for their new adventures, and we are gearing up to fight beurocracy to get a placement for Yonah that by rights he is entitled to. Most people are sleeping and I am awake and frustrated and very worried about my beautiful, kind, little boy.For the first time since we decided to make Aliya I am seriously wondering if we made a huge mistake. (I imagine most Olim wonder about this at some point - but this is little solace at he moment).

OK - now that I got this all out - I need to get some sleep so that I can fight this fight more energetically tomorrow (but if any readers have suggestions - they will be welcome!). I will try to add more details (and correct my grammar) when I am more awake some time tomorrow.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Beurocratic Snafus or Discrimination???

I have to say that thanks in large part to the help of Nefesh B'Nefesh, the paper work/beurocratic component of our current adventure has been surprisingly smooth.

There were some minor exceptions to this rule. We needed to pull together all the documents relating to conversions, adoptions, religious weddings, domestic partnership (in NY and NJ), civil union, and finally - our Connecticut wedding (done last month - on the third or fourth day of our most recent trip to New Jersey). We also needed apostiles (internationally recognized governemnt certifications that documents are legitimate) for each of these documents and so we (mostly Ian) were running around until the day before we left gathering documents and apositiles (including requiring a judge to issue a court order to open Eli's adoption records so that the original court order ordering his adoption could be checked!)

The payoff - in theory - is that we get recognized as a married couple by the Israeli governement and of course - both get listed as our kids parents, and get all the necessary legal documents on this side. This is a big payoff so it was worth jumping through all the hoops. We are still wating to confirm that this will actually happen. We received some documents at the airport - including a Teudat Oleh (immigration certificate that allows us to receive all the immigration rights granted to new Olim/ new immigrants)... now - if I understand correctly - this is normally given as one booklet (it looks like a passport) per family, but since the Israeli computer system does not know what to do with same-sex couples - it could not be issued - so we received one booklet for Daniel and the 3 kids, (listing me as married) but Ian received a separate official looking document in lieu of a teudat Oleh - also listing him as married, but not necessarily linked up to ours. OK - we could probably live with this as we were assured that it would be adjusted once we get our permanent ID cards (from the interior ministry) and go to the absorption ministry to begin processing the rest of out immigration benefits. ...

Then we try to carefully follow the steps recommended by Nefesh B'Nefesh - so the next hurdle is medical insurance. (Yay Israel for having National medical insurance at reasonable rates and free for us for the first year as new immigrants... though we will pay for an upgrade to "gold status" but compared to US rates the cost is laughable!). OK - it is a beurocracy heavy country so we need to take the insurance vouchers we received at the airport and then go to the post office to choose which insurance company we want it processed through (we are choosing Macabbi for now, perhaps another blog post will discuss insurance options)... Then we need to take the form from the post office to the offices of the insurance company to officially sign up...

This brings us to our first real problem.... The kids' and my insurance is processed fine, but the temporary immigration document issued to Ian (because the computer system did not know how to process gay families) was not acceptable to the clerk at the post office or her supervisor. We are there for about an hour - but despite the fact that they try to call all sorts of officials at the absorption ministry and elsewhere - they say their hands are tied. We call Nefesh B'Nefesh (we left the number at home so I called my mom - who did not have it - and then my sister - who just returned from London - but was able to get it from her husband at work who looked it up on line (!)) and the woman who answered the phone (cousins of congregants from both our South Orange and Jerusalem synagogues) passed us on to a woman who I think is the legal counsel (or something like that) who also had to call the absorption ministry and others - she finally called back and basically said that there was not much we could do at this point. Ian is technically covered - but until he is signed up for a specific Kuppah, if there is a medical emergency - we will need to lay out funds and then fight to be reimbursed later. Presumably - once we get our teudat zeihut (identity card) Ian will also be able to sign up for insurance (another visit to the post office and then the insurance company office)... but we will keep you posted.

I have to say - that we have not experienced much (if any) homophobic discrimination in Israel (part of our decision to make Aliya) and we are still hopeful that when our papers are all processed we will retain the married status (despite US governments refusal to respect us with the same treatment)... but we presume the straight couples with kids on our aliya flight did not have these same problems.

Meanwhile - people at stores and offices still recognize us from TV as a family and are really nice and warm and welcoming to us... so Bravo for Israeli society. (I am proud to be an Israeli!) so I am now voting to attribute this to annoying beurocracy - but the jury is still out. I will try to keep the blogosphere posted of upcoming developments.

We did it!

OK - We are now officially Israeli citizens (as of last Thursday, in fact). We flew to Israel on a Nefesh B'Nefesh charter flight. Everyone on the flight was making aliya. Almost half the passengers were children! The flight was relatively smooth (much smoother than when I flew back to the states last month: alone with the 3 kids on Lot airlines with a 4 hour layover in Warsaw!). (See picture above of Ian, Yonah and Tamar - getting along grandly on the ElAl plane!)

We are slowly getting settled in and wading through errands and red tape. We should get our teudot zeihut (citizen identity cards) by Wenesday, and that will hopefully smooth out some of the beurocratic obstacles. The kids start school September 1.

Cheers -

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Finishing up our first day in Israel

We got to my parents place less than 2 hours after landing (it was now 5PM Israel time.... we left our house the day before at 2PM NJ time). They came out to greet us with hugs and it was so great to see them after mroe than a year. My mom took the kids up with her, and Ian and I continued on with my father and most of the luggage to our new house in Arnona-Talpiot (a neighborhood a bit further South in Jerusalem - neer Baka). We had not seen it yet at all (other than via my mothers descriptions) so we were both excited to see it and unload our luggage there etc.... Of course - it had no furniture yet (we will be staying here at my parents place for the next week or 2 as we set up shop), but it was our first chance to see the house that would be our home for the next year... I gotta say - I was a bit underwhelmed at first.... The phrase "what were we thinking?" has come up quite a bit - but it was particularly prominent during the first few minutes touring the vacant house. All the empty rooms - though technically exactly as my mom had described seemed somewhat smaller than I thought they would and also somewhat shabbier. The lower level room seemed more removed from the rest of the apartment than I expected as well - making play room plans seem less sure.... However - after a few minutes I collected myself and started visualizing where furniture would go and where we could hang some nice tapestries or inexpensive art that we might find and the excitement returned. The place really is great. The kids will each have their own room (for the first time since there were 3 of them) and we have an extra guest room (we do want many guests to visit!) and the dining room is nicely open to the Living Room which is on the other side or a glass walled balcony and 6 steps down. From the LR there are sliding doors to a really cure courtyard and garden (the grass has not been watered in a while though - so it was a bit crunchy!). There is also a lower level courtyard/parking area where the kids can play as well.... All in all a nice place.

By this time we were exhausted so we took a quick walk around the neighborhood (we found a nice shopping center 5 minutes walk away) and got a cab back to my parents place (15 minutes ride)....

The first day was ending. My mom gave us dinner (yay - mom's cooking).... ok - it was leftovers from Shabbat when both my sisters and their clans stayed over - but still yummy. We gave the kids baths and tried to put them to bed, but that took a while (it was the afternoon according to their bodies - even if they did barely sleep the day before!)

I passed out on the couch - eventually moving to my bed, but it was musical beds all night.... eventually everyone settled down though. Tuesday we got an early start on shopping with my mom and getting cable, phone, internet set up. I will try to give more of an update Tuesday later - for now I need to take advantage of a sleeping family and join them!

Layla Tov -

Landing in Tel Aviv - Airport Hillarity

Hooray - we landed in Israel. The kids clapped (actually everyone clapped - do people do that on landing in other places?). We waited to get off the plane last (we still had a bunch of bags and 3 little kids). Eli was really helpful in carrying a back pack and wheeling a carryon luggage piece throughout all our transfers and airport treks. He only complained a bit at the end that he was tired - and I do not blame him at all - he still helped like a trooper. We made it through passport control smoothly as well (hooray for getting student visas in NY in advance... oooh - more successful advanced planning!) although while we were on line Yonah and Tamar started to get silly and run around in circles clearly annoying the half of the crowd that were not distracted by how adorable they were or how appropriate that reaction to being cooped up for hours and sleep deprived should be... fortunately - the clerk at the passport stand was in the group that was impressed with the adorable factor (also surprised that we were Masorti and not reform.... hmmm).

Since we were the last off the plane - spotting our luggage was easy and even though we have never travelled with this much luggage before - we got it faster than ever. OK - another adventure begins... at Newark - an attendant came to curbside with a big wagon and packed up ALL our bags while we took the kids, AND Ian's parents were with us. Here - we had to get out of the luggage area and find our driver (my mom arranged a car service with a giant van that could take us all and all the luggage) on our own, with only the tiny airport carts to help. OK - we managed to get it all into 4 carts... but only 2 grownups! Eli took one cart - he was so cute! The luggage was piled up higher than him so he really could not see where he was going and it was heavy so difficult to steer - but manage to do it he did. (Each time he almost crashed into a little old lady or a baby I felt compelled to yell at him to look where he was going - but that was more my nerves being shot than him being irresponsible. When did he turn into such a little man? (cue the Fiddler music?) ... OK so Eli took one, and then Yonah and Tamar tried the next cart - but Yonah just wanted to run with it and Tamar wanted to zig zag or have a ride... at first Ian and I tried to corral them by sandwiching their wagon between each of our own trying to steer for them - while Eli went ahead on his own (I also had to keep yelling to prevent him from getting too far ahead). Then Ian and I started bikeriung about how to manage Yonah and Tamar - who were quite out of control with the wagon - so that I ended up carrying Tamar and pushing my wagon with one hand - and Ian somehow got between the 2 remaining wagons and navigated with both of them while also getting Yonah to take a ride on the back... so we get out of the luggage area and find the guy with our name - actually we pushed the carts right passed him until Eli said something like "hey - that man has a sign that says 'Chefir-Teran', that sounds a lot like our name - but its different"... so we turned all 4 wagons around and made our way back to the spelling challenged driver (with all kids in tow) and he took one look at us and said (in Hebrew) "all that luggage? I hope it will fit!" and we said "we do too". He said - follow me, and took off (with one wagon) at high speeds across the arrivals hall to an elevator. so now Ian only had one wagon and Yonah, but we took another 10 or 15 minutes to dodge all the people and catch up to the driver.... It was a scene that the videographer should have captured for comic relief - but alas, it was not to be. (He did make me promise to take lots of video pics, but my hands were not free!)

We all fit easily into the van (amazing how much extra room there is when the driver neglects to bring car seats or booster seats!) and we were off to Jerusalem. Some intra-child bickering in the car... ok some intra-adult bickering too, but as we reached higher altitudes and entered the mountains around Jerusalem - the van quieted down and I suspect we each drifted into our own thoughts (or exhaustion).

The Flight - Smooth Sailing

The flight to Germany was smooth. The kosher airplane food was actually decent, and at least Yonah fell asleep pretty quickly. Neither Tamar nor Eli would sleep though for most of the plane ride, but they both behaved remarkably well (I am so proud of my babies!)... Good planning re activities to bring along (yes - we do plan ahead sometimes - this time by buying leapsters for Yonah and Tamar and 'encouraging' Grandma and PopPop to get Eli a GameBoy) and the fact the the movie was "Hanna Montana" (we had nothing to do with that one) helped keep them calm. Once the movie was over though - Eli was restless and would not sleep and Tamar could not get comfy (she was sitting with Ian). Eli fell asleep about 10 minutes before the put the lights on for Breakfast (Ah yes - the 6 hour time change)...

Transfer at Germany was fine - though when we landed the airport was somewhat desolate. The security check for planes to Israel was not even open yet so we had to wait around in a weirdly empty space for a bit. Closest bathroom was upstairs and quite a ways off (near emergency for Yonah - but we made it in time... no accidents for anyone the whole journey!). Eventually we made it through security again and started the next wait for the second plane that would take us to Tel Aviv. The kids were great - the grownups were getting a bit cantankerous though. We bought overpriced coffee (with dollars and got change in Euros) and that took the edge off a bit - but we also showed the kids Pocahontas on my computer. (Hooray for mind numbing technology. I remember travelling with my parents and being told to read a book - but whatever works - right?

Final flight was fine, and the kids slept a couple of hours. Landing was a bit rough though so as I was snapping pictures of the Tel Aviv beach and ski line form the airplane window (I will try and upload in the coming days), Tamar (still sitting with Ian) through up... but just a bit - and she recovered quickly. Sorry to Lufthanza for using the lovely blankets you gave us to clean it up - but they did a brilliant job!